To date, the words "music festival" and "Napa Valley" do not go together naturally — unless your idea of a music festival is Craig Chaquico performing outside the tasting room of some picturesque Victorian. Neither do "Napa Valley" and, say, "The Flaming Lips," or "The Black Keys," or even "rock 'n' roll," for that matter, unless you're thinking of a concert at the city's Uptown Theatre, or envisioning a flock of gray-hairs doing Creedence covers at a hot rod show.
All of which is probably why the announcement of next month's Bottle Rock Napa Valley music festival raised big, flashing question marks in the minds of many who heard the early details. A four-day multi-stage confab in downtown Napa, complete with a lot of bands you'd expect to see in big type on a Coachella poster, isn't what you'd call a no-brainer. The promises of fancy Napa wine and food make more sense, but the idea remains a little befuddling. A rock festival in Napa?
Yes, indeed — Bottle Rock will take place over four days this spring, May 9-12. But if you're wondering how an upscale wine-country burg could possibly host a festival as sprawling and raucous and relevant as Outside Lands or Treasure Island or even (in a roots music sense) Hardly Strictly, stop now. That isn't what Bottle Rock is about.
"What we're trying to do is a connoisseur's festival — a rock show for people with a palate," says Gabe Meyers, a co-founder of Willpower Entertainment, the small Napa firm that's putting on Bottle Rock. He points out that while festivals like Outside Lands and Coachella bring in 65,000 to 85,000 people per day, Bottle Rock will max out at 35,000. "In that sense it's a premium product with reasonably limited availability. But it's still a rock show, still loud music and fun stuff."
Expect, however, that there will be more of Napa's influence on the music than a modern festival's influence on Napa.
"It's certainly not going to be quite the amount of college kids or super-young folk that attend a Coachella, and I think that's reflected in our lineup," Meyers says. "There's not a lot of super-hipster indie bands, or hip-hop, or even electronic dance music. Although I love all that stuff, it's perhaps not appropriate for the brand that is Napa Valley."
So, with a few exceptions — recent Billboard-toppers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Dirty Projectors, Best Coast, Alabama Shakes, and a handful of others — the Bottle Rock lineup favors artists farther along in their careers. But the number of acts is considerable, and so is the diversity: There are stadium rock groups like the Black Keys, country artists like Dwight Yoakam, psycho-funk godfathers Primus, Jackson Browne, Cake, and even Blues Traveler. (Remember John Popper?) It's basically a cross-section of more-or-less contemporary guitar music that appeals to a well-heeled, over-25 crowd. (And of course it wouldn't be a wine country festival without the featherweight S.F. pop-rock act Train, who turned the breakout hit "Drops of Jupiter" and other songs into brands of vino.)
The music is only one aspect of what makes Bottle Rock a surprising endeavor. Another is its location: The festival will take place on two square miles at the Napa Valley Expo, a park-like refuge along the river in the city's downtown. Ostensibly the four-day event is a destination like any other festival, although it's less focused on pushing fans into buying multi-day passes, which start at a hefty $329. Organizers were upfront from the start about which acts are playing on which day, and Meyers says fans are encouraged to come for a single day only. That may be a popular option, because while there are hotels in the vicinity of Napa, most of them aren't cheap. Camping won't be allowed onsite. There also won't be parking at the festival itself, so attendees will have to leave cars at satellite lots and take shuttles in, or ride buses into the Napa area. (Carpools of four or more will pay $5 or less to park in the lots.)
The other eyebrow-raising aspect of Bottle Rock is the people behind it. The festival is unique among similar Bay Area events in that it isn't affiliated with any of the major national or local concert promoters. Willpower has never put on an event of this size, although Meyers' partner, Bob Vogt, is a partner in Napa's Uptown Theatre, which is increasingly a destination for touring bands. (He has no relation to Todd Vogt, head of the company that owns this newspaper.) In planning Bottle Rock, Meyers and Vogt sought to work with at least one other promotion outfit: Berkeley's Another Planet Entertainment, which puts on Outside Lands and is a partner in Treasure Island. But after talks, the partnership never came to fruition. ("Our concentration is on the immediate Bay Area and Outside Lands, and we felt there was a conflict," says Another Planet executive Allen Scott.)
Instead, Willpower raised money for the festival through private investors, and hired staff from the Bay Area's large pool of concert-production talent. "They've reached out to people who know what they're doing," says Dawn Holliday, who buys talent for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass as well as S.F. clubs Slim's and Great American Music Hall. "They have crew that's worked everything we've ever done. I think they're in good hands."
In a sense, then, Bottle Rock could herald the rise of a powerful new player on the Northern California festival scene. Whether it goes as planned — especially with regard to people getting in and out — may largely determine its success. Holliday, for one, cautions that for major festival promoters, "Everyone's first year is a learning experience."
Meyers reports that tickets to Bottle Rock are selling well. And for many, there will be at least one big advantage to holding a music festival in Napa, rather than Golden Gate Park or near the water. "Having a festival that could potentially be warm and not foggy ... is an exciting experience for the Bay Area," Holliday says, laughing. "Not having to have winter clothing on? What a thought!"